Four inspiring ways humans are tackling the crisis in our oceans

Destructive fishing practices, warming seas and acidification are bringing the world’s oceans to the brink – but these examples of sustainable marine management offer hope for the future.

The marine reserve protecting the richest reefs on Earth

Misool is one of the four major islands of Raja Ampat province in Papua, Indonesia. This archipelago is thought to be the absolute bullseye of marine biodiversity, boasting more species than anywhere else on earth. There are single reefs here that contain more species than the entire Caribbean. The Misool Marine Reserve was founded not by an NGO, but by a tourism business - the Misool Eco Resort.

Misool founders Andrew and Marit Miners leased a 120,000-hectare seascape from local communities and turned it into a protected area where all fishing is prohibited. The marine reserve is patrolled by local rangers, who report incidents of illegal fishing. Since its inception in 2005, the reserve has experienced a massive resurgence in key species, including apex predators such as sharks, whose presence is a sure sign of a healthy reef ecosystem. Between 2007 and 2013, the total biomass of the marine reserve increased by 250 per cent and in the case of some species, by as much as 600 per cent. This turnaround is made more notable by the fact that the Misool Eco Resort site used to be a shark-finning camp. The Miners collaborated with environmental NGO Conservation International and regional government to declare the whole of Raja Ampat a reserve for sharks and rays. This protection for rays has since been extended to the whole of Indonesia.

The volunteers recovering ghost nets from the ocean

Around 460,000 metric tonnes of ghost fishing gear net is lost or discardedin the world’s oceans every year - that’s 10 per cent of all marine plastics. These ghost nets, as the discarded fishing gear is called, are mostly made from Most nets are made from synthetic fibers, which means they won’t degrade for centuries, continuing to trap marine creatures long after their original owners are gone. As they drift on ocean currents, smaller fish get trapped and are then attacked by larger species. The weight of carcasses then drags the net to the ocean floor, where it’s picked clean before rising to the surface where the whole cycle begins again. Millions of marine creatures are killed annually by ghost gear, including whales, dolphins and turtles.

In the last few years, dive communities around the world have started recovering the nets that they find - from small scale fishnets to massive commercial nets that can be miles long. The Healthy Seas Initiative works with volunteer divers around the world, assisting in recovering the nets, but also finding a use for them. Most are recovered from reefs and shipwrecks, which are important biodiversity hotspots. The nylon nets are then sent to Slovenia where they are upcycled into nylon thread, marketed under the brand name ECONYL. So far, Healthy Seas has recovered nearly 550 tons of old net - a drop in the ocean, but a good start at fixing this issue. The organization also cooperates with fisheries to help them develop more sustainable practices.

Using satellites & AI to monitor the world’s coral reefs

Coral reefs could be the first global ecosystem to disappear as a result of human impact. It’s a sobering assessment based on corals’ sensitivity to heat: a 2-degree Celsius rise in global temperatures would more or less wipe out reefs worldwide - and that could happen by mid-century according the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

The situation is urgent. Scientists and conservationists are racing to find ways to safeguard as many reefs as possible from the worst effects of climate change, before this bigger problem can be solved. One of the biggest challenges has been to create baseline data of exactly where reefs are, and how they handle current climate events, such as El Niño variations in wind and sea surface temperatures. Counterintuitively, one of the most promising efforts to create this baseline is happening in space. The Allen Coral Atlas is a project spearheaded by the late Paul G Allen, co-founder of Microsoft and prominent philanthropist, in partnership with Planet Labs, a private company that operates more than 150 satellites dedicated to earth imaging.

The satellites are able to make highly detailed coral maps that can be analysed using AI algorithms to differentiate between different reef materials, with each image pixel corresponding to an area of just 11.8 square feet. The aim is to have a complete map of the planet’s reef systems by the end of 2020 - one that can operate as an alarm by quickly identifying instances of coral bleaching – a tell-tale stress response to warmer ocean temperatures.

The world’s last healthy cod fishery

Norway’s cod fisheries are among the most tightly regulated on earth. The country first started setting quotas on cod back in the eighties, and even banned fishing altogether in 1989 after a freezing winter decimated stocks. Norway has long partnered with Russia in agreeing catch quotas in the Barents Sea - a 540,500 square mile tract of ocean lying between the two countries that is highly biologically productive. Catches in the Barents Sea peaked in 2013 at around 1.1 million tons, but have been falling slightly ever since then. In late 2018, the two countries agreed to reduce the 2019 quota to 799,000 tons, a seven per cent drop from the previous year. Still, it remains one of the healthiest and most carefully managed fisheries on the planet.

Catch quotas are based on research carried out by scientists from both countries: the annual Barents Sea Ecosystems Expedition assesses the health of species from plankton up to blue whales. Water and sediment is sampled and tested for pollutants and measurements are taken at hundreds of pre-defined locations each year. The International Council for the Exploration fo the Seas (ICES) recently lifted its cod quota recommendations for 2020, indicating that the population remains stable.

The global picture is less rosy. According to the Worlf Wildlife Foundation (WWF), the total cod catch has declined by 70 per cent in the last 30 years alone. The biggest threat to the Barents Sea cod population now is most likely climate change, which could cut numbers by two thirds, as well as seeing a redistribution of populations in response to warming waters and acidification.

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